Setting out as one of the first companies to sell solar power in one of the biggest oil and gas-producing states in the union is not for the faint of heart. But J.W. Peters and Kevin Jones, both construction industry veterans, saw the opportunity in renewable energy in 2016 and went for it.
In this episode of the Contractor’s Corner podcast, I talk to Peters about how Solar Power of Oklahoma got started with five employees and has since grown to 65, with over 2,500 systems installed all over the state.
An edited portion of the interview is below, but be sure to listen to the full podcast for more insight on how SPO is spreading the solar word by focusing on educating residents, fire departments and cities.
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Solar Power World: What’s unique about installing solar in Oklahoma?
J.W. Peters, principal, SPO: We’ve been in business about seven years and we joke all the time that we were about four to five years too early in the state of Oklahoma. That’s just because Oklahomans are loyal, and we’re a big oil and gas state. That’s what a lot of our GDP is produced from.
When we started out in the market, they thought we were selling snake oil. They didn’t think that it was real, they didn’t think that it was good, they thought it was going to take jobs from oil and gas, they thought that it was just going to be bad for the market in general. It’s just been about the last two years that people have started to really kind of understand and see, “Hey, wait a minute, this is real.”
But this does make sense, this does save money. This is the cheapest way to generate electricity. So why not take an approach of all-of-the-above? And I will say that our governor has done a good job of stepping in and saying, “Yes, we’re an oil and gas state. But we should also be a wind state, we should also be a solar state — we have the sixth best solar potential in the nation. And we’re No.  on the [installed solar] list, like, why is that? Let’s talk about that and figure out how we leverage what God’s given us.”
You’re also a Tornado Alley state. Do you have to consider that in design?
We have to use a little bit larger rails in Oklahoma just to be able to get a larger wind rating. But the good news is the companies that we’re using for racking, they already have that all figured out. We can look at the table and see exactly where we’re located and figure out exactly what we need to do. So that’s always the No. 2 question that we always get — “Can this withstand tornado-force winds?” We’ve seen situations where we’ve had whole roof sections blown off a roof and solar panels are still attached to it.
The No. 1 question that we get is, “Will it withstand hail?” because here in Oklahoma, we get a lot of hail. Up until about three weeks ago, I can tell you that we’ve never lost a solar panel to hail. But we had a storm come through Norman, just south of Oklahoma City. We had literally softball-sized hail and lost eight modules in that storm. But last year, we uninstalled and reinstalled 41 systems that were perfectly fine, but the roof was destroyed by hail.
Which of your projects stands out the most?
About three years ago, we were able to do the first municipally owned project. The city of Norman reached out to us and they were interested in implementing solar. They had a water treatment plant that they wanted to use as a pilot project, we negotiated with them and went out and installed the system.
For us, it was really great, because we were able to take what we learned on that project, and they’ve been very good customers of ours to be able to help share the numbers, and share the production and the savings that they’re realizing so that we can then tell that story to other cities and towns around the state to be able to encourage them to potentially implement solar as well.